An Apology For Being “Inconsistent”

by Alice · 13 comments

By Alice Lapuerta
Originally appeared in Multilingual Living Magazine.

One thing I’ve been confused about in our multilingualism-adventure is the “consistency” factor. It crops up everywhere: Bilingualism yes, but make sure you’re consistent. Choose a method and stick to it. But always be consistent!

This worries me. For there seems to be an unspoken, unwritten phrase that follows: “Be consistent! Or else…”

The question that I always feel like asking is: How consistent, if you please, is consistent?

Does this refer to a kind of consistent that doesn’t allow any exceptions? Consistent as in Papi speaks one language, Mami another, both are strictly separated, ever and always, to the end of our days, amen? Or: don’t ever utter a word in the majority language within your four walls because that will be the beginning of the end?

Be consistent! The Alpha and Omega of multilingual parenting.

What if you’ve adopted a certain method when your child was born and you are now relocating, or somehow finding that the method doesn’t serve anymore? Does changing your method mean that you are being inconsistent? That, to be responsible and consistent in your multilingual parenting, you should always stick to a single method, always? Because if you don’t, it can, quite possibly, have dreadful consequences – like confusing your child?

Or does “consistency” mean: don’t ever mix languages. Yes but… See, this is another one of those things. What exactly does that mean? That I should not ever invent my own words, or speak Spanglish, Germspanish or Germenglish in front of my children because our children just won’t learn how to speak properly if I do?

Or does it mean that I am not supposed to switch languages in front of my child? That he only ever hears one language emerge from my mouth? Like when we are at the playground. Everyone speaks German, the majority language, yet I should stick to English with my son. But… isn’t that rude?  I feel so self-conscious when I do that and would rather speak German with my son, too, so the others understand what I am saying. Doesn’t matter, the answer seems to be: You stick to your language, always. You gotta be consistent.

And what if my daughter speaks to me in the “wrong” language, what do I do then? I guess I better ignore her or try to goad her into repeating what she said in the “right” language. She’s got to learn to be consistent as well, doesn’t she? Or else she won’t grow up into a “proper bilingual.”

More often than not I find myself in this situation:

“Mami, what is this?”

“It’s uh …” (dang it! What was that again in English? Consistent! Consistent!!)

I give up. “It’s a Dampfwalzmaschine, honey.” So much for consistency.

Or does it mean: consistent, yes, but in the end you have to do what feels right. This is another one of those paradoxes. We need to be consistent on one hand, but can, and probably should, bend rules according to our own needs. Interpret that as “being consistent at your own whim.”

Somehow that doesn’t help much, either.

How oppressive this consistency-factor is becoming. It’s a load full of rocks on my shoulders.

Mr. Consistency is like an inflexible and conservative schoolmaster, waving a rod, threatening in the background, checking on us whether we’re sticking to the rules, ready to smack my fingers at any time.

It gives me guilty feelings and instills worry. We start to check and control every single word that leaves our mouths. We check and control each other: “You just said something in English again, honey, you know you shouldn’t (at least not when the children are around)!”

Ah no, it’s not easy. For when mommy speaks German and Papi speaks Spanish and between us we speak English, yet the majority language is German, this situation is just the epitome of inconsistency. And so I bow my head in resignation. I’m really sorry, but there’s no way we can ever be consistent. It’s just not possible. Not realistic.

We just need to switch languages, code-switch, mix, and sometimes invent our own words to communicate. We need to be flexible. We cannot stick to just one method forever and always.

Instead, we ended up using two methods and merged them together, by chopping off one and sticking it to the other, fitting and molding them to serve our unique linguistic family situation. Via trial and error we created the one method, the one system that worked for us, that made us all happy. And in the process we broke all rules of consistency. Yes, we are guilty here.

I do confess: sometimes we start a sentence in one language and end in another. What can I say. Multilinguals do tend to do that. It’s in our genes! It’s part of our lifestyles.

So I sacked Mr. Consistency and felt considerably happier.

I’ve been pondering, lately. What if “consistent” is simply meant to say: “don’t give up”? Be “persistent”? You started the bilingualism adventure, it doesn’t matter how you do it, what methods you chose or what rules you have to bend to make them work for you: be consistent in keeping your faith that it will all work out somehow, in the end?

More often than not you find yourself whining: “Why can’t we just be the average, normal monolingual family like our neighbors! How easy, how simple life must be for them!” Maybe here, precisely here, we need to tell ourselves: Let’s not give up! We can do it! Others are doing it, we can, too! Let’s just be consistent!

Lo and behold, Mr. Consistency, the strict schoolmaster, decided to put his rod away. He’s finally smiling upon us.

Disclaimer: this is a subjective reflection on personal experiences. The author is not proposing for everyone to be inconsistent in their bilingual parenting, now. By all means!

Are you and your spouse consistent in your languages?  Or do you tend to mix up languages simply because that comes most naturally?


Alice Lapuerta, the Editor of Multilingual Living Magazine, is a regular contributor at Multilingual Living. She grew up in a trilingual household of German, Korean and English. She and her husband from Ecuador live in Austria where they are raising their three children trilingually in German, Spanish and English.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Melissa October 2, 2010 at 10:58 am

I’ve struggled with “consistency” as well, and came to the conclusion that what I mean when I say “be consistent” is actually, as you mention, more like “be PERSISTENT”, i.e. don’t give up. Or don’t speak the language only in quick spurts once a week and then complain that the child doesn’t understand it – because kids need to hear a language more often than that in order to learn it. But a bit of mixing and matching of languages within the same sentence (or word)? Yeeeeeeeah, my family is all about that. 🙂

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2 The Globetrotter Parent October 2, 2010 at 12:13 pm

I remain consistent in always speaking to my daughter in English (have since she was born) because I feel that I have no choice. If I mix French (the majority language and also the language of my husband) with English, it will limit her exposure to English. And given that she goes to French school as well, she needs as much exposure to English as possible. Plus, I don’t want to give her a reason to speak to ME in French (heaven forbid!).

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3 Susan October 2, 2010 at 5:22 pm

Love this post. It gives me motivation to keep trying…I remind myself that some is better than none every day. English is my native language, we’re surrounded by English and I’m with the kids for much more of the day than their dad…so it’s up to me to get them to understand and speak Spanish…so hard when the children’s songs that pop into my head are in English and the library is filled with English books and only a few in Spanish. How much easier it would be if we were back in Bolivia and they were surrounded by Spanish and I would have to speak to them in English. But that’s not the case, so I keep trying, and repeating myself in Spanish if I forget…translating if it’s too hard for the kids one day, and doing better some days than others. It’s okay. Some is better than none.

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4 Tariku Hussein October 2, 2010 at 9:20 pm

If children see their mum and dad speak different languages, switching depending on the context, the parents could be said to be “inconsistent”, but they are also acting as multilingual role models.

For example, I want to speak Amharic to my nephew, but he knows that I speak English, and so, when he talks about experiences that he had in English, say, at school, it would feel artificial to have to translate everything into some other language. So we end up speaking English or filling our Amharic with quotes in English.

Not giving up is fine, but very few children will learn to talk a language without ever living in a place where the whole community speaks it. One parent is rarely enough for children to really see the usefulness. So make plans to live abroad, if you are serious about it.

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5 Susan C. H. Siu October 10, 2010 at 8:45 am

Tariku, I think you hit on an important point, although I think it may be too strong to say that the “whole community” needs to speak a language in order for children to see its usefulness. A smaller sub-section of the community can be sufficient; I learned French in an immersion school, for example, after the language skipped a generation in my family. I am sure that one parent can succeed in teaching a child to speak a language if he/she can make the child feel like using that language is enjoyable and useful (which can be done in many ways, depending on the child’s interests and talents and and family’s values and goals), assuming a sufficient amount of overall exposure, even if that parent is not completely “consistent” in using the language with the child. However, it is certainly difficult when the parent is truly alone, and the more he/she can provide access to a larger community or create a larger community using the language, the better. If spending time abroad or putting the child in an immersion school is not an option, it may be possible to interact with other families who speak the language in a formal or informal context.

I live in a community in Maine with a strong French heritage but with almost no resources for children to learn French these days. So far my kids have been getting their exposure to French almost exclusively through me (and through books and television programs). I have noticed that my eldest child is much more willing to speak French in the summer, when he is not attending school in English, and I am definitely feeling a need to provide him with other people to interact with in French. Another French-speaking mother and I are talking about starting a cooperative school, along with a French community choir and honorary grandparent system to try to revitalize the French language in our community. When the children are old enough, we plan to send them to summer camp in Quebec.

Alice, thank you for your original post about “consistency!” It is very liberating. I am not terribly consistent in my life in general–my husband and I enjoy being adventurous, spontaneous, and silly, making up our own words and songs, taking off on unplanned trips, trying new foods, taking on new projects, and so on, and although we recognize the need for a reasonable amount of focus in order to do things well, we do not want to be arbitrarily rigid in our habits and potentially limit our capacity for enjoyment of language or life in general. Some families may need and enjoy the predictability offered by a strict OPOL arrangement (or similar plan), and that is wonderful; others, like mine, may not. I hope that no family will feel guilty about doing what works for them. We are, after all, giving our children a gift by helping them to become bilingual, and it is an amazing gift no matter what specific form it takes.

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6 Lilliana October 4, 2010 at 6:59 am

I just wanted to thank you for posting about what many of us multilinguals face. I speak two languages equally as well so ONLY speaking to my daughter in one is like asking me to hide half of myself. I do want her to learn Spanish (the minority language) properly but I can’t only speak to her in Spanish since English is as much a part of me and my daily life as Spanish. Instead we speak as much Spanish as we can but often find ourselves switching or mixing. Is it horrible? Not for us. To be honest this whole consistency issue was at first a huge turn off for me when reading advice from multilingual or bilingual “authorities” or blogs so much so that I had stopped participating and/or even reading but I’ve made peace with it when I too adopted a “don’t give up” meaning to consistency. Language learning is a lifelong process just like all our other learning should be and if we stick with it language can be a priceless gift regardless of the approach we take to get there.

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7 Tricia October 8, 2010 at 12:34 am

I appreciate this post! I’m a non-native speaker of French, speaking French to my 10-month-old son (in an English-speaking community) and I have worried about being inconsistent. But since French isn’t my native language, sometimes I just can’t say exactly what I want to say unless I throw in an English word or two (or several). For the most part I speak only French when I’m alone with him. But around others, I do feel a bit awkward or rude to only speak French, so I will speak English sometimes. That’s the main thing I’ve been worried about. I’m working on getting over my awkwardness because I know that it is better if I don’t switch to English, but it’s nice to hear from someone else that it isn’t the end of the world if I do speak English to him sometimes!

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8 bes4fture October 20, 2010 at 1:22 pm

I just published a post on my blog, questioning myself why my daughter speaks more English than Chinese after I did everything to help her acquire Chinese.

I felt guilty not strictly follow “one parents one language” rule. I read to DD in English as well, only because sometimes she got tired of our limited stock of Chinese books and wanted something different.

After I read your post, I felt much relieved. Yes, “We need to be flexible. We cannot stick to just one method forever and always.”

Just like Susan said in her reply, “although we recognize the need for a reasonable amount of focus in order to do things well, we do not want to be arbitrarily rigid in our habits and potentially limit our capacity for enjoyment of language or life in general. …We are, after all, giving our children a gift by helping them to become bilingual, and it is an amazing gift no matter what specific form it takes.”

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9 bes4fture October 20, 2010 at 1:24 pm

I just published a post on my blog (http://www.best4future.com/blog/why-she-speaks-more-english-than-chinese), questioning myself why my daughter speaks more English than Chinese after I did everything to help her acquire Chinese.

I felt guilty not strictly follow “one parents one language” rule. I read to DD in English as well, only because sometimes she got tired of our limited stock of Chinese books and wanted something different.

After I read your post, I felt much relieved. Yes, “We need to be flexible. We cannot stick to just one method forever and always.”

Just like Susan said in her reply, “although we recognize the need for a reasonable amount of focus in order to do things well, we do not want to be arbitrarily rigid in our habits and potentially limit our capacity for enjoyment of language or life in general. …We are, after all, giving our children a gift by helping them to become bilingual, and it is an amazing gift no matter what specific form it takes.”

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10 Beth O June 24, 2011 at 11:26 am

We are in a family and a neighborhood where many people are bilingual. This means our son is constantly exposed to a mish-mosh as people bounce around in two languages (mostly by choice). I was actually worried about it since for quite some time whenever my son was speaking he didn’t seem to be able to keep them straight and stay within 1 language, or the other, when necessary. But suddenly one day it just happened. I do think it might have taken longer for him, than it might have if he’d had more of each language solely, instead of so often mixed. But he got it all figured out, anyway.

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11 Corey August 18, 2011 at 4:26 am

I totally know what you mean, Beth, about the mixing of languages and then figuring it all out. It is interesting since many years ago I was chatting with Prof. Fred Genesee and he was telling me that parents shouldn’t be so worried about their children being exposed to so many languages (and even parents who mix languages themselves). He said that children figure it out over time – we just need to be patient. Our children aren’t becoming cognitively confused – they are just imitating the world around them and eventually they start putting the languages together into the “right” way. This is so true, isn’t it!

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